A Pilgrimage in the Social Hall

A handful of my parishioners and I joined together in the social hall for the purpose of making a pilgrimage. We were there to walk the Via Dolorosa together…the Way of Sorrows, or the Stations of the Cross. 

On the night in which Jesus gave us the mandate to love one another, we came together to remember just how much Jesus loved us and what he was willing to do for us.

There were a lot of little moments that touched my soul as my parishioners made their way from station to station and as I offered communion to the spiritual pilgrims… but one moment in particular will stay with me for a very long time.

Our music director’s nephew had been up the road at his school participating in soccer practice. He was to walk down to the church as soon as practice was finished. 

Bryce burst into the room as only an outgoing third grader can–with an energy and vivacity that politicians and preachers dream of possessing. But it was his eagerness to see what was going on that captivated me. He practically ran to the first station to see what was there. His aunt followed him and gently told him what the items on display meant. She is a teacher, so she has an easy way of communicating ideas to children… and I listened as Donna explained and Bryce asked questions or explained what he already knew. 

The stations were interactive, designed to put all five senses to use as we made our way around the room. Sometimes adults can be a little hesitant about handling and object or carrying out an activity, but a third grader doesn’t have those hang ups. Bryce tried the olives and spit them out. He eagerly picked out a rock to carry and placed it in his aunt’s pocket. He ate the chocolate with abandon. He rattle the chains, drove the nails into wood with the hammer, drank the vinegar… 

I sat there pondering what Jesus had told us about coming to the Kingdom like one of these little children and I wondered if Jesus had watched the little ones exploring the world around them at the Temple. He must have. Because once you’ve seen a child eagerly consume the things of faith, you know what God is looking for in a relationship:  willingness, openess, eagerness.

The next couple of days in the life of the church are hard ones. They are emotional. And I hope I can come to it with the same desire to learn and experience as Bryce brought to our piligrimage in the social hall tonight.

Bombs and Babies

I would knock the hell out of ISIS…[and] when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.  ~ Donald Trump (Time, December 2, 2015)

Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. ~ 1 Samuel 15:3

When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. ~ Matthew 2:16-18

Dear God:

I won’t pretend to understand all those Old Testament commands you issued–to kill and slaughter “beautiful babies”. I’ve wrestled with them all my life. From smashing tiny, fragile skulls against stones to the wholescale slaughter of the firstborn across Egypt, I have struggled to understand. I won’t lie to You, either. I have been outraged and angry when I hear your command to Abraham, even though I know how the story ends… because Abraham didn’t know. Nor did Isaac, bound beneath the glinting knife.

I don’t understand.

But I know Your voice when I hear it. And I heard it when you sent the angel to Joseph and sent Your Son into Egypt, not as a slave, but as a refugee, at the mercy of others.

I heard it when Your Son spoke to Jairus’ daughter:  Taulitha koum.

I heard it when Your Son scolded his disciples, “Forbid them not… for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.”

I have wept for Isaac. For the firstborn of Egypt. For the innocents of Bethlehem. For the children of ISIS and Syria…

Because I heard your voice speaking when Your Son said, “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.”

I won’t pretend to understand all those Old Testament commands to slaughter and destroy even the children… and I suppose one day, standing in Your Holy Presence, I may find the courage to ask You… but for now I struggle and I listen for Your voice which still speaks through Your Son and I know–I know— that bombs are not your way.

Whatever brokeness and sin brought us to places where death and destruction seemed the only way, it was never where You meant us to be. It was never what you intended when You created us. And it was not what Your Son died on the cross for…

Your world was never meant to mix bombs and babies.

And this is why I weep today.

Love, your heartbroken and weary daughter,

Amanda Gayle

Riding in Cars with Men (…and I guess dining with them, too)

I had not been in the ministry long and was brand new to the area I was living in.  I immediately set about meeting with my local colleagues in the United Methodist network and beyond.  McDowell County, West Virginia is a mission field for most major Christian denominations because of its complicated mixture of socioeconomic and environmental issues which have left a lasting impact on the culture and the land. So, it was no surprise when a couple local missionaries, based out of the deep South, but living in Welch, showed up at my office wanting to tell me about the work they were doing and invite me to join them.

Both men had fallen in love with the people of McDowell County when their churches made short-term mission trips to the area. As these men reached retirement age in their professions, they felt themselves called to launch a full-time ministry in the area. 

They had a passion which matched my own, and a vision I could get onboard with. Their desire wasn’t simply to bring resources into “The County”, but to provide a dignified way in which those most in need could begin peicing together the necessary parts of their lives. I was sold pretty quickly.

A couple weeks passed and one of the missionaries, “Don”, called me and asked if I would like to see the Ieager (pronounced Yay-ger) site of their mission work. There was a work team from Georgia in town and he thought it would be nice if they could talk to a minister who was a West Virginia native.  I agreed to go, but I was not familiar with the town of Ieager and needed help fining my way.

Don volunteered to drive me and we arranged to meet at my church and carpool out.

Everything was going great the day we made the trip. It was a beautiful summer day with bright blue skies and not a cloud in sight. Being an avid carpooler, I was perfectly comfortable in the passenger seat of Don’s pickup truck as we headed toward the little town a few mintues North.

All of a sudden Don made the whole thing very awkward and uncomfortable… and he waited until we were well out of Welch city limits, on an isolated stretch of highway.

“I usualy don’t run around alone in a car with a woman,” he said, “But I’m hoping anyone who sees us will understand the situation.”

The situation? 
What situation?
Two colleagues sharing a ride to a ministry setting?
And… “running around”?

The worst part of it was that Don had just made my presence in his vehicle abot sex. The only reason he would have to be worried about my presence in his car was that it could be a threat to his marriage or viewed as such by someone else. Which was the furthest thing from my mind. 

My hand to God, the only thing I thought this twenty minute ride was about was ministry:  Driving from point A to point B so that we could do minstry. I wasn’t planning on doing anything  other than ministry with Don.

But now it’s about sex.

I tried to make excuses for Don’s faux-pas. He was much older than me, so he was from a generation that honestly didn’t believe men and women could be friends without a sexual element involved. And he was Southern Baptist, so chances are he didn’t really see women as acutal ministry colleagues. He was respecting my position as a pastor because the ecumenical nature of mission work required him to, which was commendable… but on some subconcious level he probably had a hard time seeing me as an actual pastor.

While I didn’t view this as a sexual advance, it certainly raised a red flag because, for whatever reason, Don sees this as a sexual issue.

Don is thinking about sex.
Why is Don thinking about sex?
And why did he start thinking about sex only when we reached an isolated stretch of road?
Why didn’t he think about it before I got in his truck, when I could still opt to follow him in my own car rather than be closed up in a confined space with him?

I was uncomfortable. I leaned awkwardly against the door because that’s what I subconciously do when people act inappropriately around me, I lean away from them.

And I was offended.

I am a pastor.  I am a well-educated woman. I have worked hard to accomplish these things in my life. I am well-read. I am disciplined (even if sometimes a procrastinator) and I have dedicated my life to full-time Christian service. I volunteered to serve in an isolated area with a unique set of economic and cultural obstacles–an area some of my colleagues wished to avoid. I am a hard worker. I am fiercly loyal. And I deserve to be treated with resepct and dignity as a Child of God; but, Don is treating me like a sexual object–as if anyone looking at me will see the entirety of my worth in my sexual attainablity. Don let me know, in one simple, awkward, offensive, intimidating statement, that he saw me only as something that could sexually corrupt since I wasn’t sexually connected to him through marriage.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that horrible carpool lately because of past comments Vice President Pence once made (which have recently come back into the limelight) about not dining with a woman.  VP Pence and Don are both guilty of doing the same thing: reducing women to sexual objects. Women, in their estimation are either sexually acceptable or sexually inappopriate, but never anything other than sexual things.

We aren’t colleagues in their eyes. We aren’t people who have worked very hard and become very good at what we do, people who deserve an audience and an opportunity to excel. And should we forge a way for ourselves outside of our marriages in the professional world and seek to be treated as an equal, we are looked at with suspicion: as corruptors who are seeking to destroy the peace and happiness of men.

We deserve better.

Jesus, thankfully offered us better.  When he met the Syrophonecian woman by the well and engaged her in a theological discussion (despite the obvious social taboo of speaking to a woman alone or associating with a Samaritan), he set an example–one which spit in the face of social norms and identified women as being worthy of the Gospel, of  salvation, or standing before God. There were numerous other instances–when he allowed Mary to set at his feet and learn with the other disciples, when he intervened in the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, when he discussed the theological issues of Resurrection with Martha in Bethany… Jesus, over and over again was displaying the perfect relationship betweeen men and women.  He didn’t identify us as sexual objects, even when sex was involved (the woman caught in adultery), but as children of the same Creator.

Confess What? (Thoughts on Psalm 32)

The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven,
whose sin is covered over,
is truly happy!
The one the Lord
doesn’t consider guilty–
in whose spirit there is no dishonesty–
that one is truly happy!
When I kept quiet, my bones wore out;
I was groaning all day long–
every day, every night!–
because your hand was heavy upon me.
My energy was sapped as if in a
summer drought.
So, I admitted my sin to you;
I didn’t conceal my guilt.
“I’ll confess my sins to the Lord,”
is what I said.
Then you removed the guilt of my sin.
That’s why all the faithful should pray to
you during troubled times,
so that a great flood of water
won’t reach them.
You are my secret hideout!
You protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of rescue!
I will instruct you and teach you
about the direction you should go.
I’ll advise you and keep my eye on you.
Don’t be like some senseless
horse or mule,
whose movement must be controlled
with a bit and a bridle.
Don’t be anything like that!
The pain of the wicked is severe,
but faithful love surrounds
the one who trusts the Lord.
You who are righteous,
rejoice in the Lord and be glad!
All you whose hearts are right,
sing out in joy.

(Psalm 32, Common English Bible)

It takes forty days for us to confess the burdens of our souls in preparation of Resurrection Sunday (Easter.) Forty long days. And that isn’t counting the Sundays of Lent. Add those in and it comes closer to 50 days.

Why so much time focused on confession and fasting?

As a child I assumed confession only alluded to the “bad” things we’d done. So, I would list the naughty things. And if the list didn’t seem long enough to be sufficiently penitent, I’d go to the old fail-safes:  “Forgive me for not being a good daughter, for not paying attention in school, for picking on my sister, for fighting with my brother…”

Often, those “confessions” were so vague and general that I couldn’t really tell you what specifically I had done wrong.  But that was the nature of a sin-only confessional:  A person spends so much time self-flagellating that she winds up seeing herself as nothing more than a steaming pile of bad. Surely, if I was such a bad person, I must be a lousy daughter, sister, student, friend, etc…

There wasn’t a lot of room left for self-exploration, let alone time to decide what it was I needed to name in order to be set free.

Sin isn’t just about the “bad” things we do. It isn’t just about the “wrong” things.

Sin is anything that separates us from God. And sometimes, what we need to confess isn’t a list of the naughty things we’ve done…

Since adolescence I have struggled with depression. These dark episodes of my life aren’t caused by anything I’ve necessarily done. It’s not that God is punishing me for being “bad” by oppressing me so heavily with suicidal depression that each day during those periods of time was a struggle just to make it through. It was caused by biological factors–a brain chemistry that wasn’t quite right (and in later years, a thyroid that just doesn’t quite function correctly).

However, there is a major stigma about mental illness in our society–particulary around depression and anxiety.

“You just need to get over it,” I was told. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Just decide to be happy. Stop being negative. Just think happy thoughts. Anti-depressants are the lazy way out. Pray more. The only prescription you need is an Rx for the Bible!”

There were nights I lay in my bed, sobbing into my pillow because I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the night. There were moments when everything in me was so twisted and tense that I couldn’t even drag myself out of bed. There were mornings I cried because I didn’t have the strength to get up. And there were the prayers–that a logging truck would strike my car so that I wouldn’t have to go through the motions of another day. A nice, long coma seemed a happy alternative to the misery of one more day with the weight of the world hanging on me.

So many of my confessions during that time of my life were missing the point. I’d beg for forgiveness for feeling so bad, as if I’d chosen it. I’d ask for mercy for the hurt I was feeling, as if I’d just decided I wanted to be suicidal. But I wasn’t able to name the actual thing that was separating me from God because I assumed the only way of understanding sin was to see it as something I had done wrong.

Then came the suicide attempt.

Then another.

There was the therapy I didn’t want to tell anyone about because I was afraid it was a sign of weakness. Why did I need to talk to a stranger? Wasn’t talking to God enough? What could some middle-aged woman with a notepad do for me that God couldn’t?

And the dark episodes just didn’t stop coming.

I’m not sure when exactly I realized I was not confessing the truth about my situation. I was so busy trying to live into the narrow misunderstanding of sin, that I had not been able to see just how much I needed to name the thing that was hurting me–to say it out loud–to tell God that I was hurting and why I was hurting without having to whip myself for the pain.

It was a pastor in my teens who pointed out to me how many of the Psalms deal with anquish and depression. He told me to read the Psalms attributed to David, to pay attention to the moments when it seemed David was suicidal or so depressed he couldn’t find the strength to go on.

And so I’ve been reading the Psalms ever since because I hear my own voice in David’s songs.

Yes, David did things that were a clear transgression against God and against others. Despite his legendary leadership skills and his devotion to God, he could sometimes be a bad person.

But, can’t we all?

And yet, many of the Psalms didn’t necessarily deal with his trangressions, but his anquish at things beyond his control.

Oh, how many mornings did I lay in my bed, like David, with “my bones wore out… groaning all day long, every day, every night… my energy sapped as if in a summer drought”?

David was never afraid to name his pain. And he did it eloquently. Nor was he afraid to point out the separation between him and God.  For David, confession was about more than simply listing his wrongdoings… it was about naming his hurt and pain and suffering, whether it was caused by something he had done or something caused by sources beyond him. He acknowledged his depression, and even his suicidal moments. He confessed his loneliness and his fear. He told God when he was angry at other people… and at God. He named it all.

Confession is about naming. We just don’t name the wrongdoings of our own lives, but we name the things that separate us from God. We name the suffering and that is the first step to allowing God to bridge that gap, to reach across and offer us a respite.

We need these forty days because we need the time to really dive into the depths of our souls, to explore the broken places and to find those chasms between us and God. We need time to begin to name them. We need time to understand them. And we need time to listen for God’s voice coming to us from the other side.

To put it bluntly, if your Lenten confession is nothing more than a list of your wrongdoings, you’re doing it wrong. You’re missing the point. Sit back down. Look deep inside your soul. And begin to name the things that are blocking you from truly accessing God.

It’s when you keep quiet that your “bones wear out.”

But confession will set you free.

 

 

A Lenten Prayer And Confession of Sins

For this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed,  and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. ~ Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV)

How many times, O Lord, did I sit silently as Your children huddled in cold homes? How many times did I choose a night of Netflix and Hulu binge watching while my elderly neighbor sat in unending silence? How many times did I choose to waste away in my freedom rather than enter into the hell of incarceration with the suffering, the broken, the hurt, the hopeless?

I cry in outrage as I listen to wealthy men explain why the poor and the elderly are no longer productive–why we should no longer invest in their well-being. I shout at the walls, rage at the news, and greive in my heart for those whose suffering will amplify, for those whose voices will be weakened and ignored. 

But as I search my heart this season of Lent–as I pick away at the things that have built up in my heart, in my conscience–the things that have separated me from You, I realize my silence has made me complicit. My comfort made me reluctant to demand Your justice. I sat by, idly, distracted by the things of this world, only to find that the worse had become commonplace. I opened my eyes and saw the shadows of Sodom had engulfed us all. That arrogance and complacency had claimed us all and the poor and the needy were being crushed.

For my silence, forgive me.

For the sins of my complacency, which gave birth to the sins of a selfish, unconcerned society, forgive me.

And give me strength.

The wilderness is a frightening place and my sojourn has just begun, but the weight of a barren place is taking its toll. I yearn for the lush valley, again. I yearn for the peaceful places beside the still waters. I yearn for the bounteous pastures. 

But I must finish this journey and stare deep into my own soul. It is there that I confront the darkness of evil, where the devil has hidden in the corners, and I must resist the temptations of my own heart. 

In this desolate place, let me find my voice. Let me find courage. Let me find a faith in You and in Your justice. Let me cross this dry place and come out on the other side, declaring that Your Kingdom has come, on Earth, as it is in Heaven. Let me cry the tears You cry for Your hurting children. Let me hear the cry of Your people, calling to You for a justice this world will never give them. And let me be a laborer in Your kingdom. 

Forgive me my sins.

And give me a message to carry to the people–a message from Your own heart. Amen.

One Word at a Time

It was about four years ago that I decided to take my practice of spiritual writing up a notch and to dedicate myself to writing a post each day during Lent.

How that season played out was not what I expected. I assumed I would write my simple little devotions and thoughts–and a handful would read them. But I didn’t expect that one post would create so much drama and conflict in my life.

In those four years since I have learned so very much more about myself, about God, and about my relationship with God.

But I have also felt heartbreak like I never knew was possible.

One would think that heartbreak might be a bad thing… and in many ways (one of which I will address in a moment) it did. But mostly the heartbreak forced me into a place where I had to trust in God so much more than I ever had before.

By facing the heartbreak day-after-day, having to seek out the signs of a Living God still pulsing under the surface, searching for the beauty in an ugly moment, reminded me that God is still more powerful than all the hate and hurt and suffering in the world. Each day, each new moment of heartbreak, was another opportunity for the Spirit to rise up like a phoenix from the ashes and catch me up in the whirlwind of the Spirit’s movement.

So, as I approach this new Lenten season–the last I will be spending in this particular town–I find myself thinking about the first Lenten season I spent here and how much I’ve change and grown over the years. For the most part, its been for the better, I think. I’m more certain of who I am as a beloved Child of God. I’m more certain about my calling and what direction it is taking me. I’m more certain that God has called me to be in ministry to the marginalized and disenfranchised–particularly the LGBTQ+ community.

Yet, as I mentioned, there have been some not-so-positive effects of heartbreak and I have to tackle those and reclaim them in my own life.

Somewhere along the way, I let go of one of my most cherished spiritual disciplines: writing. It wasn’t just that I stopped writing publicly… I stopped journaling and creating in general. It was as if the greatest outlet I’d had since childhood to pour our my soul to God had been stolen away and beaten to a pulp.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I had a strange dream–most of the details I won’t bore you with… but as it ended I came face-to-face with an old college professor who has since passed away, Dr. Richards. He was also a priest and a friend with whom I stayed in contact until he died. In this dream he asked me point-blank what happens to my blog when I don’t update it. I confessed that I haven’t been updating it because every word I type is burdened by depression and anxiety about how people will receive it, what their reaction will be, or how they’ll treat me. To this, Dr. Richards simply said, “You’ve just got to write it one word at a time until you get it all out.”

So, here I am. I’ve come full-circle to a brand new Lent. Once again I’m at crossroads in my life and I’m wandering out into the wilderness to pray to God for these forty days and forty nights… and I’m going to do it one word at a time.